So, here we are. Governments rightly or wrongly (probably wrongly), have us re-emerging from lockdown wearily out into the sunshine, blinking into the sunlight as we gaze upon a post Brexit/Trump/Covid world. Would anyone mind if I went back into lockdown?
As anyone who has read this blog before will know, I have a thing for nostalgia; specifically the nostalgia of my youth. Fear not dear reader I won’t rabbit on about videos, the toys I sold for an unspeakably cheap amount in the Loot or Sandra Bullock again. However, I am going to briefly introduce why I love films about basketball.
My brother, Paul, being four years older than me, influenced many things I did as a child. He played Nintendo first, listened to rap first and played basketball first. The latter two have been constants in my life since the introduction/copying of my big brother and judging by the title of this blog, I’m sure you can see where this is going…
Both my brother and I are of the age to have experienced the ‘92 Barcelona Olympics. Most people in Britain will think of Linford Christie, Roger Black and Sally Gunnell, but for us it was the Olympics of ‘The Dream Team’. In all previous tournaments the US teams were made up of amateurs, as is the Olympic tradition. This was the first Olympics to have professional NBA basketball players on the roster which in 1992 meant Scottie Pippen, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley and, most importantly, Michael Jordan. After this tournament, which the US easily won, basketball took on a huge global appeal which coincided with my brother starting high school and being introduced to basketball, as well as Channel 4 getting the rights to the UK coverage. From the moment my brother started talking about basketball, to me then actually playing and seeing it on television, I fell in love fairly quickly. It was big and brash, teams were called Bulls, Sonics, and Magic, not United, City and Albion, for some reason the players wore vests and didn’t pull up their socks and all the jerseys were as colourful as a bag of pick ‘n mix. Paul then added to the obsessive nature of my personality by buying NBA season review videos, as well as compilation videos of ‘The Biggest Dunkers’ and things of that nature. However, undoubtedly and taking way too long to get to my point, as I so often do, the most important of all these videos was the season review of the Chicago Bulls 97-98 season. In fact, we had all of the season reviews after Michael Jordan returned from retirement, but this was the greatest player of all time’s last season (at that point) before retiring for good. It is also the focus (something of which I could do with) of the excellent ESPN/Netflix documentary The Last Dance
At this point I’ll apologise for rabbiting on, after clearly stating two paragraphs ago, that wouldn’t happen. As you may have noticed reader, I can’t be trusted on this matter. Back to my convoluted point and notably, in case anyone hadn’t noticed, this year has been utter bobbins. However, personally there have been a couple of highlights and chief among them was the period of 5 weeks early in lockdown, when every Monday night I’d watch the latest two episodes of The Last Dance. From the first frame I was hooked, so much so that I’ve managed to watch all ten episodes three times over. Despite being hugely popular, in that it chronicles Michael Jordan’s last season with the Bulls, as well as expertly documenting his, Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson and Dennis Rodman’s careers within this framework, the whole thing felt so personal to me. After watching the first two episodes I mentioned to my brother that it felt as though someone had made this just for us. It’s a testament to the filmmakers that something so widely consumed, could feel as though it was made solely for my entertainment. Now I appreciate this blog is called Bob on Film and that this isn’t a film, but I wanted to take a moment to gush over 500 minutes of nostalgic joy. But due to its success, I’ve been aware that people who previously wouldn’t have bothered with basketball have come around to its beauty. Being a lover of basketball since I was a child and loving films pretty much more than anything, I wanted to highlight a few films that manage to capture what I love about basketball.
Firstly, it would be impossible to have any sort of basketball film list and not include the masterpiece documentary Hoop Dreams. Released in 1994, it follows two young boys (Arthur Agee & William Gates) as they navigate their way through high school while pursuing their dream of making it to the NBA. Filmed over five years director Steve James narrates stoically throughout, never selling the viewer on any particular narrative, just presenting Arthur and William’s lives as they happen. Despite being a near three hour documentary, I must have seen it over twenty times. It was something I’d watch endlessly as a teenager, completely fascinated by the journey we are taken on as viewers. As a young person watching this, the thing I enjoyed most was the games, seeing the boys grow up, the fashion and, without realising it, the narrative arc of a real life coming of age story. Watching this as an adult, it’s a completely different viewing experience. All the things I loved as teen are still hugely appealing elements to the film, but there are themes and historic social injustices playing out on screen before your eyes. Seeing the young pair plucked from the south side of Chicago’s notoriously tough neighbourhoods, to play for a basketball ‘programme’ in a fee paying, majority white school in an affluent suburb, immediately sticks out. We see scenes of a 14 year old Arthur leaving his home at 5am, commuting in the bleak Chicago winters as if he were going to a job. The fact that he has only been afforded the opportunity of a ‘better’ education comes because he is good at a sport, as well as the literal price of tuition fees doesn’t sit well. When the family can no longer afford to pay and Arthur isn’t at the point, basketball wise, that the coaches anticipated, he leaves the school with his family in debt and a place at the local school which doesn’t quite have the same infrastructure as his previous. Both young men also deal with living in the south side of Chicago at the height of the crack epidemic and Reagan’s war on drugs. Friends and family are lost to dealing, addiction and crime. As a teenager I don’t think I realised how relevant this moment in time was, and seeing it play out against the innocence of two young boys trying to pursue an impossible dream is extremely powerful. Roger Egbert, the great American film critic, was a huge fan and cheerleader for this film, and championed it upon its release. I could write for pages about the various aspects of this film that I find incredible, but the greatest testament remains that over 25 years on, it as powerful as ever. A true masterpiece in every sense of the word.
Following on from this I’d like to highlight another documentary, Lenny Cooke. This film is named after the once feted high school star, who was seemingly on course to superstardom before outside influences and injuries took hold. Directed by the wunderkind sibling duo The Safdie Brothers, it sees Lenny reflecting on what could have been, as well as mixing in archive footage that sees him going up against future mega stars Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James. Being slightly older than both, his seems to serve as a cautionary tale to any aspiring athlete/musician/artist to not get ahead of yourself and take each day as it comes. The stand out scene sees our present day Lenny transposed within the archive footage next to his younger self after he has just walked out of practice in a moment of frustration, telling him where his actions will take him. Coming before their indie gems Heaven Knows What and Good Time, as well as their breakout hit Uncut Gems which co-stars former NBA star Kevin Garnett playing a version of himself in a world of diamonds, gambling and anxiety, the pair let their love for the sport shine through, without compromising the excellent filmmaking in documenting Lenny’s story. Another must watch.
I appreciate that the two picks thus far have been fairly serious fare, however I do have a lighter pick. It would be remiss of me not to choose White Men Can’t Jump. Again, my obsessive personality coupled with the need to watch things over and over means that I have seen this a ridiculous amount of times. In fact it has just occurred to me that my second pet, a hamster bought for my ninth birthday, was named after Wesley Snipes’ character; Sydney Dean. First of all, what a great name. Secondly I didn’t want to call him Billy Hoyle, which was Woody Harrelson’s character name. Looking back though, I think I may have got this wrong. As a kid I thought that Sydney was the man! I thought he had all the moves, I liked his clothes and when he wasn’t Sydney Dean he was Blade (although not for a few years). Billy Hoyle however, now that I’m in a reflective mood, could shoot, had better clothes, was funnier and could actually play basketball. Please don’t let this put you off, because to the untrained eye Wesley Snipes is great, but on reflection I think it’s camera trickery and Woody was actually “the man” for all these years. Not to mention that he could play guitar and his girlfriend was Rosie Perez. I’ve got nothing else to add, because surely everyone’s seen this film, but I will say be more like Billy Hoyle if possible.
Finally I have to end with He Got Game. Directed by the master Spike Lee, himself a huge basketball fan who can often be seen court side watching his beloved New York Knicks. The film centres around the fraught relationship between Denzel Washington’s Jake Shuttlesworth and his son, played by real life NBA star Ray Allen, the aptly named Jesus Shuttlesworth. Plot wise, the film could be considered fairly simple; Jake must convince Jesus to commit to play basketball at the fictional Big State University and Jake will receive a reduced prison sentence. Taking those plot machinations and proving there’s anything but a simple plot in there, Spike introduces the fact that Jesus is the number one basketball recruit in the nation and that his father Jake is servicing a life sentence for the murder of his wife, Jesus’ mother. Revealing to us the corruption and greed behind college athletics in America, that sees young men make millions in revenue for universities in return for athletic scholarships, Spike approaches this subject with the frankness as well beauty and poetry we’ve become accustomed to from the maestro. Tackling this, as well as framing the horrors of domestic abuse, in several guises, he still manages to paint a beautiful portrait of the game he so clearly loves. As he often does, we start the film with a montage and from the first moment I saw this I knew I was in safe hands; a fact affirmed when the montage included the aforementioned Arthur Agee from Hoop Dreams. A truly wonderful film and my favourite in the basketball genre. In hindsight tough, it was never in doubt when Spike was the head coach and Denzel was the star player.
Before I exhaust everyone, there are a few more I could have chosen and would like to highlight. Love & Basketball, a rare film that shows basketball from the female players perspective just as much as the male, if not more. Blue Chips, another film which explicitly highlights the corruption in college sports, with Nick Nolte growling as the head coach and NBA players Shaquille O’Neal & Penny Hardaway playing two of the college players illegally recruited to play for Nolte’s side. I could easily go off on a tangent here, because I love this film, but I’ll stop before I get carried away.
And finally the crowning achievement in all basketball films, perhaps all sports films; Teen Wolf. On second thoughts actually, maybe not.